I find myself almost immediately conjuring up images of the rising sun on a beautiful day whenever I hear Edvard Grieg's Morning Mood, as do I think most people I know if they were to hear it (although I don't know whether this association is cross-cultural). The piece is practically synonymous with the dawn of a new day, and I'm wondering whether that is because I think it sounds like dawn, or because I have been conditioned to associate it with the dawn.

In a similar vein, other compositions can make me think of running water, a cold winter, or the twinkling depths of space. It most often occurs with the use of a full orchestra, but I find some pieces for individual instruments can do it also.

Is there a word or phrase to describe a piece of music being reminiscent of something like 'morning' or a season? And is this association through conditioning or something natural to the human mind?

I suspect it is through conditioning for something like Morning Mood, but then that begs the question of who first thought it sounded like the morning (probably Greig) and why they thought it sounded like the morning rather than something else. This seems to lead into soundtrack composition, where composers want to use the ambient music to convey a mood or describe a setting. How do they decide what sounds like 'sadness', or what makes a scene 'tense', and how/why do we interpret those musical cues the same way they did when writing it? Why does a 'hopeful' or 'melancholy' piece still sounds that way even without the visual aid of the scene it accompanies is what I'm trying to ask, and is there a word that describes this phenomenon?

1 Answer 1



Program music is the general term for music that intends to be descriptive.

Program music is a type of instrumental art music that attempts to render an extra-musical narrative musically. (From Wikipedia, linked above.)

Titles, such as "Morning Mood", often are indicative of such a piece.

Why do we make the associations?

This is an area of much research and debate, but two points, using "Morning Mood" as an example.

  • Morning is often a time of quiet and relative dark, emerging into the beginnings of the active day and full light. So music that begins slowly, quietly, and low-pitched can conjure similar feelings. Those feelings evolve as the music gains speed, volume, and pitch -- feelings similar to those of coming into full wakefulness and the sun rising. This similarity of feeling is a core aspect of program music.
  • At the same time, "Morning Music" is written in a particular musical language, "Western Classical", for which there is a previous foundation of culturally accrued conventions and associations. For example, there is a section of Rossini's William Tell Overture (1829), also depicting morning, which sounds very similar to Grieg's "Morning Mood", but composed 46 years earlier.

Thus, there may be aspects of a piece which can be perceived "universally", but other aspects for which one needs some greater or lesser cultural awareness.

Association with soundtracks

"Morning Mood" is, in fact, "soundtrack" music. "Morning Mood" was composed in 1875 as part of Grieg's incidental music for Henrik Ibsen's play, Peer Gynt (1867). Another particularly well-known piece form the same "soundtrack" is "In the Hall of the Mountain King."

The music achieved sufficient popularity that Grieg compiled it into two "Suites", comprising music originally composed for the play.

Peer Gynt Suite #1 (Op. 46)
Peer Gynt Suite #2 (Op. 55)

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